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  2. UK Politics
13 July 2020

Boris Johnson’s government is dangerously suppressing dissent

The mediocre, time-serving, wayward and sleazy survive as long as they blindly support the Prime Minister.

By Martin Fletcher

What does it say about the Johnson-Cummings government that it is manoeuvring to have Chris “Failing” Grayling – the bungling former cabinet minister who gave contracts to ferry companies that owned no ferries, caused chaos on the railways and banned books for prisoners – chair parliament’s supposedly independent intelligence and security committee?

It says that it refuses to subject itself to proper scrutiny; that it will not be bound by the traditional checks and balances on its executive power; and that it prizes loyalty, subservience and commitment to its populist revolution above ability and basic competence. 

It also suggests that the government has little intention of letting the previous committee’s potentially embarrassing report on Russian interference in British politics – completed, approved by the security services and presented to Johnson’s government nine long months ago – be published any time soon, if at all.

There is a pattern emerging here. Under this administration, the mediocre, time-serving, wayward and sleazy survive and even prosper, so long as they blindly support the government as it gambles recklessly with the country’s future. 

Conversely, good men and women, those who dare to question the costs of the government’s zealotry, are cast out – often after having their names besmirched by unattributable briefings to the media.

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Thus the government imposes the loyalist Bernard Jenkin as chair of the liaison select committee, and nominates the fanatical Brexiteer Liam Fox to be director general of the World Trade Organisation. Even as David Frost, another committed Brexiteer, negotiates a new trade deal with the EU (or fails to), he is promoted to the post of national security adviser, for which he is manifestly unqualified.

Within a conspicuously mediocre cabinet of “yes” men and women, Robert Jenrick survives as Housing Secretary despite approving a Tory donor’s £1bn property development plan that had been rejected by Tower Hamlets Council and the government’s planning inspectorate – and doing so just in time for the donor (Richard Desmond) to avoid a £45m levy payable to London’s poorest borough.

Priti Patel survives as Home Secretary despite her shambolic quarantine policy, her failed attempt to make foreign-born NHS workers pay a healthcare surcharge and multiple allegations that she bullied civil servants, which the government is reportedly now seeking to airbrush away.

Most egregiously, Dominic Cummings himself remains in post despite flagrantly breaching the Covid-19 lockdown rules that he helped impose on the country. That breach had grave consequences. It shattered the government’s authority and credibility at the height of a national crisis.

Meanwhile, Mark Sedwill is ousted as cabinet secretary for being insufficiently enthusiastic about Cummings’s revolution. Ditto Simon McDonald and Philip Rutnam, respectively permanent secretaries at the Foreign Office and Home Office.

Sajid Javid resigned as chancellor after refusing to accept Cummings’s plan to curtail the Treasury’s traditional independence from No 10. Special advisers have been told that henceforth they answer to Cummings, not their ministers. Those who resist – such as Javid’s former aide Sonia Khan – are summarily dismissed. 

Even Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, the government’s chief scientific and medical advisers, appear to have been sidelined now that the health of the economy trumps the health of the people in the government’s mind. Nobody should be surprised if Simon Stevens, the NHS chief executive, is forced from office as the government seeks to evade blame for its handling of the pandemic; or, come September’s expected reshuffle, Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, who had the temerity to question the viability of Johnson’s Brexit border plans.

And then there are the likes of Jeremy Hunt, Greg Clark and Geoffrey Cox, experienced members of past Conservative cabinets who have been excluded from this one for being too independent; and the many moderate, thoughtful Tory MPs – the likes of Dominic Grieve, Rory Stewart, Philip Hammond, Oliver Letwin, Justine Greening, David Gauke, Sam Gyimah, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Philip Lee – who were essentially purged from the party last year for daring to oppose the government’s Brexit extremism.

This suppression, this punishment of dissent is dangerous. At a time when the government faces the enormous, concurrent challenges of Covid-19, Brexit and the deepest recession in living memory, and is planning radical reform of the civil service, it should welcome wisdom and experience. It should embrace the able and talented. It should heed voices of caution – not contemptuously dismiss them.

In a recent speech, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, warned that “groupthink can affect any organisation – the tendency to coalesce around a cosy consensus, to resist change, look for information to confirm existing biases and to reject rigorous testing of delivery.”

He added: “When you get a critical mass of people in any organisation who have similar outlooks, biases and preferences the minority who may dissent become progressively more uncomfortable about doing so.”

His target was the civil service, but he might well have been describing his own government.

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